At this year’s E3, I was given the chance to sit down with Ubisoft Montreal’s For Honor, a weighty and engaging take on medieval combat pitting Vikings vs. Samurai vs. Knights. It was better than anything I’d anticipated.
The studio that brought you Assassin’s Creed, the modern Far Cry games, Watch_Dogs (including the upcoming Watch_Dogs 2), and Rainbow Six: Siege, are trying their hand at open warfare in For Honor. Their pedigree is undeniable, but it’s also easily associated with gameplay that retreads the same essential ideas over and over again. For Honor, happily, does not follow this trend.
That’s not to say the game is especially complex, at least at first glance. This is a game about third person melee combat in the chaos of battle, which isn’t exactly new ground in gaming. What sets For Honor apart isn’t concept, but execution — no pun intended.
The single player campaign mission I sampled told the story of a mere soldier’s rise to knighthood for his valor during the course of a bloody siege. After being given a few moments to choose from a roster of potential character designs — all of them very similar, clad in head-to-toe plate armor and washed in the colors of their allegiance.
The full game will include many more character options, broader variation between them, additional weaponry, and two other sides — the Vikings and Samurai — with their own complement of features. But despite the character restrictions of the demo, I was very pleased at the authenticity on display. When I was dropped into the siege, that feeling was only magnified.
The introduction to combat was simple, but the combat system itself was surprisingly complex. Three different directional guards are also angles from which you can attack with light or heavy blows. You’ll want to match the angle of your enemy’s attack if you’re defending, but quickly switch and subvert it if you want your blade to meet flesh rather than glance off an upraised shield.
The combinations of weapons, armor, enemy types, and the sheer chaos of a fortified castle crumbling against the onslaught of enemy forces provided all of the variety I could have hoped for, but it was the movement of the characters that truly impressed. Every action feels responsive but “heavy,” a sensation I haven’t experienced so viscerally since my initial time with the original Gears of War.
The cacophonous crash of steel punctuating the roar of battle made me feel as if I’d been dropped into an iconic scene from something like Braveheart. As I charged full-tilt through our faltering defense, I cut a bloody swathe through legions of unskilled foot-soldiers. When I met up with someone who provided any actual challenge, the cat-and-mouse game of swift blows, feints, parries, and dodges began and ended in seconds. It was methodical and intense. The wild sweeps of my sword had to be traded instantly for careful positioning, predictive defense, and vicious offense with only fractions of a second in which to make those judgments.
The only real break in immersion came in the form of collectible glowing power-ups scattered through the levels, offering the opportunity to regain some health in times of dire need. While I appreciated the ability to make up for my mistakes with a heroic shrugging away of my wounds, I couldn’t help but feel that the painstaking atmospheric efforts were being sabotaged by a “game-y” design.
The demo concluded with a contest of champions, a duel in single combat that was surprisingly difficult in comparison to what had come before. Though I still managed to emerge victorious, that victory rested against the razor’s edge of defeat.
Games like Chivalry: Medieval Warfare have provided takes on the same era of combat that are accessible and fun, but undeniably clumsy. In the end, you’re still just swinging wildly into a circle-strafing mass of enemies in what most often looks like The Battle of Helm’s Deep as performed by Monty Python. For Honor has combined the heft of historic melee combat with animations and mechanics that enhance that coveted feeling of immersion. Despite a very few missteps in that regard, this is hands-down the most I’ve ever felt like a warrior of ages past.
With the addition of further customization, multiple factions, and an epic multiplayer concept, For Honor was not only one of the best games of E3 2016, but now one of my most anticipated releases in 2017.
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